What are endocrine disrupting chemicals?

Chemicals are substances that is made up of matter or particles. They can be solid, liquid or gas, found naturally or be human made. Most things in our everyday lives are made up of chemicals, including the hormones in our bodies. Some chemicals in our environment, food sources and other products have been shown to disrupt the normal function of the endocrine system. Scientists have labelled these chemicals, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals or EDCs.

How are we exposed to EDCs?

A range of EDCs have been identified.  The Endocrine Society in the USA have produced a downloadable resource which outlines the common sources of EDCs in our community. These include common pesticides, solvents, plastics and food storage materials and personal care products.

How do EDCs affect our health?

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that many common chemicals we are exposed to everyday are linked to endocrine related health problems including infertility, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

One of the most studied are perfluoro alkyl substances or PFAS which are a large group of chemicals that have been in production since the 1950s.  These “forever chemicals” are synthetic compounds often used for their water repelling qualities in carpets, food packaging and firefighting foam. PFAS are not produced in Australia, and there are efforts to reduce importing goods containing PFAS. However, PFAS remains in our environment and in our bodies. Some of the endocrine health concerns include:

  • People with higher levels of PFAS were shown to be associated with more weight gain following dieting. Levels were also associated with a lower metabolic rate.
  • In Australia, higher levels of PFAS in local community members living near Australian defence force bases. The study found increased cholesterol levels in those with higher PFAS levels.
  • PFAS has been linked to reduced fetal growth and is detectable in the cord blood of babies.
  • A Danish study has shown increased levels in mothers associated with lower sperm counts and poor sperm quality in adult male children. Both of which can lead to infertility.

A systematic review of 30 research studies has shown that exposures to a range of EDCs is related to endometriosis. To learn more about endometriosis you can read our article here.

Breaking the plastic code

Our plastic materials are labelled with a series of numbers or codes from 1 to 7.  While we often think numbers are to assist in recycling and reduce waste these numbers also tell us more about the plastics. These resin identification codes tell us more than just which bin to use.  While the numbers identify the main plastic component, they don’t tell us about the other chemicals which are in the plastic. Some of these plastics are known to be unsafe. For example, polyvinyl chloride or vinyl (3) and polycarbonate (7) can both leach harmful chemicals including BPA which can also cause hormone disruption. BPA or bisphenol A exposure is widespread in humans and thousands of animal studies have shown adverse effects.

How can we reduce or avoid EDCs?

In 2004 the Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants was ratified in Australia.  The convention seeks to protect human health and our environment from chemicals that persist in our environment. Australia placed controls on the import, manufacture, and use of the 12 chemicals listed initially.  More chemicals are now recognised, and the Australian Government has processes in place to assess and manage newly listed pollutants.

While we may not know the full impact of EDCs in our environment there are a range of strategies, we can consider reducing our personal and community risk which can be found here – some include:

  • Thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before consuming them.
  • Replacing older non-stick pans with newer ceramic-coated pans.
  • Opting for glass rather than plastic containers for food storage and reheating
  • Avoid outdoor exercise when pollution levels are high.
  • Choose products labelled “Phthalate-Free”, “BPA-Free”, and “Paraben-Free”.
  • Safely replace old fluorescent bulbs and deteriorating construction materials from older buildings.